A lack of watchfulness is perilous to our souls — I mean very real peril, not metaphorical or virtual or poetical peril.
The apostle Paul knew the perils we would face while following Christ:
Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love. (1 Corinthians 16:13–14)
The exhortation may seem somewhat out of place in a long list of personal updates (1 Corinthians 16:1–24), but the “out of place” lines in Scripture can be especially revealing. Paul clearly carries a serious burden that his readers be watchful and courageous, especially the men leading and shepherding the church and their households: “act like men.” The call to vigilance and courage, however, is a common one in Paul’s letters — one he makes to men and women alike. The Spirit, through the apostle, wants all Christians to act with courage, no matter where their Lord has placed them on the spiritual line of battle.
Through Paul’s burden for the Corinthians, the Holy Spirit is now calling us to courage — a call we in the West increasingly need to hear, because it is becoming increasingly costly — and therefore difficult — for us to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” (Hebrews 10:23).
In the New Testament, “watchful” (1 Peter 5:8) or “awake” (Mark 13:37) or “alert” (Acts 20:31) are terms writers frequently use to urge us not to neglect the significant danger surrounding us.
I saw this in a rabbit feeding early this morning just outside my office window. This rabbit was the epitome of watchfulness. It never let down its guard, no matter what it did; it was constantly on the alert. And for good reason. Dogs pass by regularly. A rabbit is vulnerable to dogs; a lack of watchfulness can end its life.
That’s the kind of watchfulness the Holy Spirit, through Paul, is telling us to maintain. “Look out for the dogs” (Philippians 3:2). Beware the “fierce wolves [who] will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29). A Christian, like a sheep, is vulnerable to the “dogs” and “wolves” of the evil one. Paul is using a metaphor for the embodiment of the threat, but not of the threat itself. These spiritual threats are greater to us than wolves are to sheep.
Therefore, the Spirit wants us to be sober-mindedly watchful of the devil’s activity (1 Peter 5:8). Do you really know what hunts you? Do you know where he is in relation to you (Galatians 6:1)? Do you know where he is in relation to your family and your Christian brothers and sisters (Ephesians 6:18)?
Our call is to protect one another, and part of that involves remaining steadfastly watchful in prayer (Colossians 4:2). We all know what that means, because any time we feel in real danger, our prayers get real earnest, real quick. A lack of watchfulness in us indicates we don’t believe danger is imminent. And that is a dangerous mindset for the vulnerable to have.
Stand Firm, Be Strong
“Stand firm in the faith.” This kind of resolve is no mere good intention or the flimsy New Year’s kind. This is true resolve: a holy, stubborn determination. It is drawing the line in the sand and not backing down. It is a will to hold the ground, come what may.
Paul uses this phrase frequently (2 Corinthians 1:24; Galatians 5:1; Philippians 1:27; 2 Thessalonians 2:15). It is warrior language: “Take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm” (Ephesians 6:13).
Spiritual warfare is not a metaphor. It is very real and very dangerous. It is not for the faint of heart, though in the rage of battle every warrior feels the temptation to faint from the fight. Soldiers have to be reminded to stand firm. They must remember that there is a cause and comrades that need defending and an enemy that must be vanquished.
We must steel ourselves against whatever fear the threat provokes and resolve to stand our ground. That is what spiritual strength looks like on the ground. In Paul’s mind, to “be strong” is to choose courageous action in the face of danger only in the strength and with the weaponry God supplies (Ephesians 6:10, 14–17). Faithless strength or weapons are of no use in this battle (2 Corinthians 10:4–5).
Let All Be Done in Love
At first read, we might wonder what the vigilant, and almost violent, admonitions to “be watchful,” “stand firm,” and “be strong” have to do with the exhortation to “let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:13–14). But there is no inconsistency whatsoever.
Love is the greatest power at work between God and man, and between man and man (1 Corinthians 13:13). Love is also the most destructive power against the domain of darkness. Jesus came “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). He did this primarily when “he laid down his life for us” as a propitiation for our sins, and then instructed us to “lay down our lives” for one another in the spirit of gracious, patient, sacrificial kindness (1 John 3:16).
Nothing demonstrates and communicates the gospel as clearly as love (John 13:35). Nothing is as relationally healing as love (1 Peter 4:8). And when love is lacking, it is the evidence of the influence of the devil (1 John 3:10).
So, “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24). For words and deeds of love, while being the most healing to the human soul, are the most spiritually destructive acts we can commit against our spiritual adversary. Love is the greatest spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 13:13), and love is the most powerful spiritual weapon (Romans 12:20–21).
Our Need for Watchfulness
We need this word from Paul right now — this almost offhanded admonition slipped into a list of logistical details. Because we need vigilant, courageous love. We always need it, of course, but we will feel our need of it increasingly as our society grows increasingly hostile to Christianity.
We need a holy watchfulness so that we don’t allow the wolves of false teaching to graze on the flock of God. We need courage, not to fight as culture warriors, but as New Testament spiritual warriors. We need a holy, stubborn determination not to give an inch of true gospel ground, regardless of changes in societal values and government policy. And to ensure that our watchfulness and courage remain Christlike, we must let all we do be done in love.